What future for Boerentoren?

Architectural interventions rarely arouse public opinion, except apparently when it comes to the transformation or extension of heritage. In itself, it is good that everyone enters the debate about handling inheritance. It is a pity that this debate also seems to polarize into a (false) contradiction: One group believes that one must dare to intervene drastically in connection with modernization, innovation and a possible future. The second group is wary of change and believes that heritage must be protected and preserved. In reality, the issue is much more complex because there are as many ways of dealing with heritage as there are heritage buildings.

At one end of the spectrum is the emphasis on restoring and preserving for the future. The building is recognized for its cultural-historical value, as a landmark in history. For buildings that are the only ones left from a bygone era, or that are a special expression of an architectural style or have a unique value as a witness to a vanished culture, this is the right answer. Provided that they are well preserved and have retained their expressive character. In this case, a new program is not the guideline for adapting the building: the program adapts to the reconstructed space. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but this is not the only clue.

The other extreme consists in sweeping through the building and putting a new layer over it, which gives it a completely new character and a new expression. To this end, people often use a formal language that explicitly seeks a break with the old building. The latter is expressly relocated to announce that the days of this monument are over and that a new era is now dawning. The building will have a different program, tailored to today’s needs, and the new architecture expresses that change. This strategy is appropriate for buildings that have lost their character and glory over time due to neglect or constant changes.

However, it is never one or the other. Each cultural heritage object must find its place on a value scale between complete restyling and maximum preservation. It is crucial to first have a consensus on exactly where the building is located on that scale and how much renovation or conservation it needs. To determine that place, you must first thoroughly study what is already there. This not only requires building historical and technical-structural research, but also an investigation of the building’s significance in a wider societal context. To do this, you need to consult experts and give citizens input. But it also requires consultation with the public actors, who will soon have to give advice, issue permits and – for example in the case of protected cultural heritage – will provide state support.

Once you have established your position as a developer, you must start from respect for the building and from a thorough analysis of its spatial, structural characteristics, its architecture and ornaments. You can then, as the Germans call it, ‘Weiterbauen’. Building on, adding a new chapter to the building’s narrative without mutilating it. The new language does not have to be nostalgic or historicizing: it can show the innovation, which can be done in a whisper and without shouting. The building is not constructed or raised from the dead, but is given life extension.

Fortunately, there is a wide range of talented designers worldwide (and also in Flanders) who have mastered the ‘Weiterbauen’. For the reuse of the Antwerp Boerentoren, why should we settle for an American architect and a shrewd entrepreneur who will leave their mark on Antwerp’s skyline at all costs? Shouldn’t we all first ask ourselves if it is really necessary to transform an existing icon into a new one? In the proposal of Fernand Huts and Daniel Libeskind, is the Boerentoren really ‘given (back) to the people of Antwerp’, or is it handed over to the tourist industry?

Erik Wieers
Flemish government architect

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